The Magazine

What Clinton Did to the Left

He tamed them -- but their animal spirits may be returning

Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By DAVID FRUM
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"Naderites comfort themselves with the notion that Al Gore will win anyway and that a Green Party vote will push him to the left. And here is where they make their biggest error of all. For how did Clinton and his administration come by their achievements? By the skin of their teeth. Clinton never won 50 percent of the popular vote and was always politically vulnerable because of it."


Paul Berman, The New Republic, Sept. 18, 2000.

"Let's pretend it's the day after the election, and the votes are in. Bush got 49 percent, Gore got 46 percent, and Nader hit the 5-percent jackpot (not gonna happen). Do you really believe the Democrats are going to smack their foreheads and say, 'Oh, my God, let's move to the left and snap up that 5 percent!' Don't be an idiot. The Dems will look at the numbers and say, 'Let's move to the right and try to peel some of that 49 percent off Bush.' If Gore loses the election by less than the percentage Ralph picks up, we'll all be watching the Dems run right, not left."


Dan Savage, The Stranger, Oct. 19, 2000.

Ralph Nader is "under the naive impression that [a Bush victory] will heighten social contradictions and lead to what he has called 'a progressive convulsion' -- that is, the worse, the better. This is sectarianism of a familiar sort in the century just past -- a sectarianism that has reaped nothing but political catastrophe."


from an open letter signed by, among others, Benjamin Barber, Todd Gitlin, Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, and Sean Wilentz, Salon, Nov. 6, 2000.

"Careful studies have never been able to identify the so-called silent progressive majority -- the Nader voters who otherwise wouldn't make it to the polls."


Eric Alterman, The Nation, Nov. 13, 2000.

BILL CLINTON did something that neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan ever managed: He convinced the American left that the United States is a conservative country.

For eight years, Clinton steered his party in a rightward direction. Maybe he didn't begin intending to steer that way. Certainly he didn't steer that way all the time. Still and all, you'd have to search pretty hard to find an important national Democrat who today believes that the federal government should regulate oil prices or allocate capital to startup industries, or that domestic industry should be protected from foreign competition, or that welfare is a fundamental constitutional right -- all things that Democrats did believe in the 35 years up to 1992.

In years gone by, Democratic presidents who defied liberal orthodoxy in this way provoked insurrection on their left: Harry Truman had his Henry Wallace, Lyndon Johnson had his Eugene McCarthy, and Jimmy Carter had his Ted Kennedy. Yet even as Clinton inked free-trade pacts with Mexico, surrendered to welfare reform, increased the number of federal death-penalty offenses, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, acceded to the Republican capital-gains tax cut -- despite a slew of policies almost calculated to give liberals heartburn -- the political and intellectual left side of the spectrum stood by its man with the devotion of so many Chicago aldermen. Clinton plucked his renomination without opposition, almost without criticism, and held the Democratic party and its sympathizers in the press virtually unanimously behind him through the deadliest political storm since Watergate.

Now obviously liberals gained things from the Clinton presidency: an unyielding defense of abortion and racial preferences, an expansion of some social welfare provisions, and a grand new health care undertaking -- the Children's Health Insurance Program (or CHIP), which encourages states to offer Medicaid to all under-18s -- that may someday mature into the large domestic program that otherwise eluded Clinton. On the whole, though, Clinton was to liberalism what Nixon was to conservatism: a leader who demanded much from his supporters and delivered little.

Like Nixon, Clinton was able to hold his supporters in part because he so enraged their enemies. It's hard to avoid feeling that a leader is on your side when he makes the folks on the other side go purple in the face. Like Nixon, too, Clinton benefited from his political weakness. Democrats feared to pressure Clinton to move leftwards lest they erode his shaky political position.